Playing the long game: Retirement planning for superintendents

Turf managers are wise to strengthen their personal money management skills sooner rather than later to ensure a timely and secure retirement.


Golf course superintendent retirement
Only 48 percent of GCSAA members feel they are on track to retire on or before their full retirement age. Photo by

Planning for retirement rarely, if ever, makes its way onto a superintendent’s crowded to-do list. There’s aerification to worry about, preparations for that member-guest tournament to consider, and that leaky irrigation line isn’t going to fix itself. Who has time to think about that 401(k) or sit down with a financial planner?

Dennis Lyon, CGCS, can relate to that line of thinking because he lived it himself. For 37 years, Lyon oversaw golf operations for the city of Aurora, Colo. As a city government employee, he did have a pension plan, but he admits he didn’t pay any attention to it for the majority of his career. He also put a small percentage of each paycheck into a 457(b) savings plan, but didn’t give that much thought either.

“I was busy raising four kids and expanding our operations from one course to seven,” says Lyon, a 43-year member of GCSAA who served as the association’s president in 1989. “Then, at age 62, I looked at my retirement account and realized I could stop working without impacting my lifestyle. When I think about how many golf course superintendents work for small business owners that don’t provide retirement savings plans, I realize how lucky I was to have had that pension plan, because even with my own savings and Social Security, I would have had to completely re-evaluate my options without that pension.”

According to the most recent data from GCSAA, Lyon’s assessment rings true across the profession. The 2015 GCSAA Compensation and Benefits Report showed that 83 percent of GCSAA members surveyed work for an employer that offers a retirement plan, and another association survey found that 95 percent of respondents were saving for retirement in one way or another. Of that 95 percent, however, only 48 percent felt they were on track to retire on or before their full retirement age, and seven out of 10 said that financial issues were their most common cause of stress — stress that can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and living outside of one’s means.

So how can superintendents relieve that anxiety and become more confident in their retirement planning efforts? Industry veterans who’ve either been through the process, are going through it now, or have worked in both golf and personal finance, say knowledge and awareness are the best cures for what ails superintendents when it comes to adequately preparing for retirement.

Both sides now

Kevin Sunderman has seen personal finance from both sides of the table. The 16-year GCSAA member is a former investment representative for Edward Jones and had his Series 7 securities license and an office in Bradenton, Fla. He was working a normal, 40-hour workweek and earning good money in his role, but the Ohio State graduate with a degree in turfgrass science says he missed the outdoors and all the reasons he had pursued that field of study in the first place. So Sunderman left the finance world and took a position as the assistant superintendent at TPC Prestancia in Sarasota, Fla. Two years later, he was hired as the director of grounds at Isla del Sol Yacht and Country Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he’s been for the past 11 years.

Sunderman says a deeper understanding of the retirement planning process — and an informed approach to it — can only benefit superintendents in the long run.

“There are a lot of single-owner facilities in our industry,” he says. “A lot of superintendents haven’t been given employee-sponsored retirement plans. Or they have, but not matching, and they are not being told how to invest. Corporate golf might be better with more education, but there are so many facilities that are small businesses that don’t provide it, and those superintendents probably aren’t thinking about it until they’re in their 50s.”

Keith Smith, a 10-year member of GCSAA who lives in Hudson, Ohio, took the path opposite of Sunderman’s, spending a decade as a superintendent before switching careers in 2005 to become a certified financial planner. “At the end of the day, it’s about saving money,” Smith says. “Everyone gets that. Spend less; save more. It’s a simple concept, but the discipline of accumulation is a lot tougher.”

Starting early, spreading the word

Matthew Gourlay, CGCS, acknowledges that he’s made both good and bad decisions regarding his personal finances and retirement prep. The third-generation superintendent, who heads maintenance at Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan, Kan., says he was a little too careless with his finances right out of college, but when one of his best friends became a financial planner, Gourlay was his first customer.

With a new focus on long-term investing and saving, Gourlay, a 14-year GCSAA member, bought a four-bedroom house and rented out three of the rooms for additional income. “My wife and I meet about our retirement plan every month,” he says. “She’s a saint. We’ve been married for six years, and we’ve had roommates the whole time.”

At age 31, Gourlay says he can’t picture what retirement will look like when the time comes, but he knows he wants to be prepared, and while he loves talking turf with the students from Kansas State University’s golf course management program who work at Colbert Hills, he’s also started sharing other advice too, including the lessons he’s learned on his financial journey. “(Turf) is all they talk about, but I’m trying to do a better job of talking to them about saving for the future,” Gourlay says.

Slow and steady

GCSAA’s Compensation and Benefits Report puts the average intended retirement age among GCSAA members at 64.8. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the average American life span is 78.8. According to data compiled by the Social Security Administration, a man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3, and a woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6. And those are just averages. About one out of every four people 65 years old today will live past age 90, and one out of 10 will live past age 95. These numbers paint a clear picture of why getting a jump-start on building up retirement savings is so important.

Sunderman’s “a-ha” moment regarding retirement planning actually occurred before he changed careers. He recalls sitting across the table from clients in their 60s and having to tell them that, despite working hard their entire lives, they hadn’t yet saved enough money to stop working. Those experiences spurred Sunderman to focus on saving to take better care of himself and his family.

“I learned that saving a little bit early on and continued, repetitive additions add up in the end,” he says. “Fifty or even 20 dollars out of your paycheck is a lot when you’re struggling, but you get used to it not being there. I know when I was first starting out, retirement savings just wasn’t part of my thought process. Ten dollars a month seemed like food out of our mouths. But those systematic savings add up, and any time there’s an employer-sponsored program with matching, that’s free money.”

The value of time and compounding interest is powerful motivation to begin saving while you’re young, but it’s never too late to start. “You can’t just stick your head in the sand,” Sunderman says. “Some people wake up one day, realize they didn’t save enough, and panic. Don’t give up. Evaluate where your money goes and your possessions. Seek out an expert and create a plan. This is not a road to travel alone. They earn their commission. They’ll look at everything, the whole picture — assets, debts, income, lifestyle, target retirement age, target retirement lifestyle — and help create a plan. If they don’t do that, find someone else.”

Lyon says he has seen too many superintendents have to find other work after they’ve retired from the golf course because they hadn’t saved enough to stop working at retirement age. “You have to plan for your future because nobody else is going to do it,” Lyon says. “The day will arrive in your life when you load up a box of plaques and pictures, and you go out the door. You need to be financially ready.”

First things first

Despite leaving the golf course management industry, Smith has remained dedicated to sharing his expertise with those still working in his former business. Shortly after he became fully licensed as a financial planner, the Northern Ohio GCSA invited him to talk retirement readiness at a chapter event.

“There were about 35 superintendents there,” recalls Smith, who now works for Morgan Stanley. “I signed a guy up after the meeting, and then a few more who were there called me in the next few days and signed up. I’ve probably spoken at 25 or 30 chapter meetings around the country since then, and I’ve picked up a lot of clients that way. I’m a superintendent that manages money instead of managing grass.”

Smith’s first piece of advice to superintendents is to evaluate cash flow and what purchases can be done without so that every penny earned isn’t being spent. Next, he suggests saving for an emergency fund that can cover three to six months of living expenses. After that’s built up, Smith says the focus should then shift to eliminating high-interest debt before increasing retirement savings. For superintendents who have young children, life insurance should take precedence over putting money toward retirement. “Before we even get into retirement, we need to address that in case something happens to you,” Smith says. “You need to be able to offset the loss. That protects your family.”

Financial education opportunities

Eighty-eight percent of GCSAA members agree or strongly agree that there is a need for GCSAA to provide retirement planning education for its members, and at February’s 2017 Golf Industry Show in Orlando, the association will present a free education session on the topic. Both Lyon and Smith will be participating on the session’s panel.

Lyon says he wishes GCSAA could do even more, such as provide a retirement plan for its members (legally, though, GCSAA can only do that for its own employees), but he’s happy further retirement-focused education has been added to the association’s curriculum.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a part of turf school,” says Lyon, a recipient of GCSAA’s Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award and the USGA Green Section Award. “I’m driven somewhat by the whole reason GCSAA was started by Col. John Morley. We’re a brotherhood that cares about each other and is driven by our profession and human benevolence. We need to educate ourselves to take better care of ourselves.”

Bill Newton is a freelance writer based in St. Louis and the former public/media relations manager for GCSAA.